May 2, 2004: Headlines: COS - Panama: COS - Colombia: Terrorism: Speaking Out: Roanoke Times: Panama and Colombia RPCV John Freivalds says We misunderstand terrorism at our peril

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Panama: Peace Corps Panama : The Peace Corps in Panama: May 2, 2004: Headlines: COS - Panama: COS - Colombia: Terrorism: Speaking Out: Roanoke Times: Panama and Colombia RPCV John Freivalds says We misunderstand terrorism at our peril

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Panama and Colombia RPCV John Freivalds says We misunderstand terrorism at our peril

Panama and Colombia RPCV John Freivalds says We misunderstand terrorism at our peril

Panama and Colombia RPCV John Freivalds says We misunderstand terrorism at our peril

We misunderstand terrorism at our peril

by John Freivalds

Freivalds runs an international communications firm in Lexington.

When I was in the Peace Corps in Panama and Colombia, and then later working in Iran, Afghanistan, Cuba, Kazakhstan and Russia, I always got myself acclimated by going to a local barbershop and chatting with the barber. It was the barber who filled me in on what was going on in town and what reaction there would be to a particular development.

This worked for me because I could speak the languages that the barbers spoke. Additionally, I listened to and acted on what they said.

If you think this approach sounds silly, why did the CIA always come to see me after one of my overseas business trips?

As we beat ourselves to a pulp over gathering and using intelligence in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is reason to believe we rely too much on academia, think tanks and self-interested businesses like the Carlyle Group and Halliburton. Little attention is paid to what we can learn from scruffy local barbers and merchants.

This might sound too simplistic, but it really isn't.

Our political leaders trust only people who are mirror images of themselves. That usually means going to people who attended the same universities, hold the same views and speak only English.

Most of our bad intelligence came from Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exile who speaks fluent if not eloquent English and spent much of the last 20 years doing deals in London. Over and over, I hear such people ask, "How come the natives just don't get it?"

In Colombia, with terrorism problems of its own that we will soon have to deal with more aggressively, one of the most disdainful names someone can call a self-important bureaucrat is a corbata, someone who wears a tie.

That sort of person can't understand the type of warfare used by the terrorists and deprecated by the Pentagon as "asymmetrical warfare." Asymmetrical for whom? Are the insurgents in Iraq supposed to acquire tanks and face off against the United States in World War II-style tank battles?

In Colombia, when protesters of one ilk or another wanted to take on the government over an issue, make an impact and had no weapons, they brought Bogota's economic life to a halt by scattering roofing nails over the city's streets and removing manhole covers in the middle of the night.

Morning traffic was gridlocked by thousands of flat tires and scores of cars with broken axles. Can you imagine the traffic tie-ups in D.C. if someone did this on the Beltway? Who would think that what you can get at Home Depot would produce such an effect?

Terrorist values and approaches to life and warfare are totally different from ours. It is no surprise that while terrorist plots were brewing, our politicians were concerned about space missile defense and getting funding for a 42-ton cannon to drag into inaccessible canyons.

I was in Washington recently to attend a sparsely attended seminar on translation needs and the war on terrorism. A packed audience was in the next, larger conference room to hear about "Business Opportunities in Space Warfare."

But even with more translators, 9/11 could not have been prevented because of a "poverty of expectations." We are neither accustomed nor trained to believe what sort of "asymmetrical" attack we might face.

This is not new. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor could have been prevented. All the information was there, but we couldn't perceive that they could do something like this.

That was not new, either. Did the enemies of Troy in 1194 B.C. fathom that the Trojan horse they let inside of their gates would have contained soldiers to open the gates? Our porous immigration policies and terrorists posing as students let the 9/11 hijackers inside our gates using the same ploy 3,195 years later.

So what do we do?

Be especially skeptical of getting intelligence from someone who speaks English in a non-English-speaking country.

If someone speaks English, he or she has already drifted away from the sources of information and hence the power in their own country.

Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, is a case in point. He speaks great English and wears suits and ties, and cuts a great figure in the halls of Congress talking about democracy for his country.

But Seymour Hersh, writing in a recent issue of The New Yorker, recalls a conversation with a U.N. worker. "Karzai is perceived as a weak leader with little street credibility.... [V]illage elders say 'Hamid is a good man. He doesn't kill people. He doesn't steal things. He doesn't sell drugs. How would you possibly think he could be a leader of Afghanistan?'"

Pay more attention to people who don't speak English.

Americans have a tendency to assume that if you don't speak English or if you speak English with a heavy accent, you are not very smart. A monolingual cleric in Iraq, who has never been out of the country, is causing us all kinds of grief, not to mention a disaffected Saudi by the name of Osama bin Laden. And to figure out what these people would do, we have an eloquent national security adviser with a Ph.D. from Stanford?

Put yourself in the other guy's shoes and listen.

We don't seem to get how the other guy is going to fight. By sheer luck, we were able to catch Richard Reid, the infamous shoe bomber, whom we now honor by having to remove our shoes every time we fly.

One further thing that goes against our winning the war on terrorism: the American way of thinking that someone is innocent until proved guilty.

One endearing quality of Americans is that we are trusting. We believe people from the get-go; almost immediately we are on a first-name basis.

To the outside world, this is a sign of weakness, not strength, and something to take advantage of.

Based on what I have seen in cultures of poverty around the world, people don't care about democratic processes or even understand what they are. They want stability and for their guy to be in power. They do not want a new form of government. It is no surprise to me that posters bearing the image of the angry cleric al-Sadr are being pasted on the base of Saddam Hussein's former statue.

Going to the barber to get intelligence, and to figure out what to do with intelligence, is simply a metaphor for anyone who has access to what is going on. As the testimony before the 9/11 Commission and recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan point out, we don't have those people now.

Instead, we have corbatas, and that frightens me.

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Story Source: Roanoke Times

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Panama; COS - Colombia; Terrorism; Speaking Out



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